Stakeholder interviews, part one: Obtaining robust one-on-one feedback

Note: I’m Working Out Loud to document my learning journey around developing a digital learning course for the Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change program at Northwestern University. 

The first iteration of the digital portfolio course is built in the Canvas learning management system. This design is based on research, project KPIs, answers to key initial questions and a first round of stakeholder interviews.

We met with a group of MSLOC instructors, one-on-one, to collect initial feedback. Instances of overlapping feedback was integrated into the course design. This week, we are meeting with seven MSLOC students, also one-on-one, to document their reactions, thoughts and feelings around navigating the course.

It is important that the designer document as much real-time feedback as possible. Most participants are not accustomed to providing a stream of consciousness around what they are feeling and thinking when navigating a process, especially if it’s the first time they’ve seen the UX.

Here is guidance that we use to draw out as much robust response as possible.

To the focus group participant before the review is started:

  • As we go through this site, please think out loud
  • There is no observation that is too small to mention
  • Tell me what you’re trying to do
  • Tell me how you think you can do it.
  • If you get confused or don’t think you can understand me, please tell me
  • If you see something you like, please tell me

As the participant navigates the course, avoid asking “yes” or “no” questions and ask open-ended questions:

  • How would you decide to navigate X?
  • What is this [FEATURE] for?
  • What do you expect [FEATURE] to do? Why?
  • What goes through your mind as you look at [FEATURE]? Why
  • What are you looking for? Why
  • What would you do next? Why
  • Does the general navigation and flow make sense? Why or why not?
  • Describe, overall, what’s happening in the modules? (The interviewer is looking to determine if the modules are the correct size, if any parts seem overwhelming, etc.)
  • Does the quiz hit the mark as more of a checklist?

It’s important to take notes verbatim. There can be nuggets of insight used in particular phrasing that will be valuable when reviewing the notes.

This process is all about removing the friction from the process for the participant. Where are the points that feel overwhelming to someone who is not used to working with content management systems, not used to consistently blogging or not used to getting feedback about their writing?

We want to remove unnecessary obstacles that would keep the student from learning how to develop a WordPress site.

Guiding principles


What is your change professional point of view? What experience and research informs your opinion? What is the insight from peers? How do you know what you’re coming to know?

These are key questions posed throughout the MSLOC program, especially when asked to write our 10 guiding principles around change management.

Here are mine (originally part of a paper, hence the inclusion of references):

  1. Remember the “human” part of human capital: Pulling organizational levers during change initiatives impacts real people in profound ways. I was part of the wrenching change in the media industry during the past decade and it impacted plenty of careers. While there might be no avoiding negative impacts of change, the consultant and client should work to minimize negative impact – at every stage.
  2. Deliver change communications authentically and strategically: Communicating effectively about the impact of a change strategy at every level of an organization can make the difference in an effort succeeding or failing. That seems like common sense, but how many times have change communications efforts fallen short in your company? I have experienced situations where employees informally learned about a coming reorganization and started rumors, filling the vacuum left by a lack of communication. That quickly torpedoed morale before the change even began. Messaging should also be tailored to the audience receiving it (Barrett, 2002). That includes making sure that leaders’ actions and words match strategy, that the communications team is looped into decision making, that communications strategy is added to business goals and that it is constantly evaluated (Barrett, 2002).
  3. Communication is not just a push: Incorporating regular, multi-level stakeholder feedback at every phase of a change project is critical – both within formal and informal networks (Kitchen & Daly, 2002). Including employee views on such topics as participation, involvement, morale, leadership and rewards (Kitchen & Daly, 2002) can help them “see themselves as involved and participating in the initiative” and “they are more likely to be supportive” of the effort (Cawsey, Deszca & Ingols, 2016, pg. 221-222).
  4. Consultants must collaborate: The change practitioner as an external consultant doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have all the answers, especially when starting to work with a client. Trying to force a template into a solution can make the client feel ignored. More so, the change manager should approach the job knowing that his or her actions can have an inadvertent negative impact. There can be good reasons why employees resist change and the change practitioner must factor that feedback into the process (Ford, Ford & D’Amelio, 2008). The consultant can actually contribute to breakdowns by having poor communication, not following through on promises or blaming resistors for problems (Ford, Ford & D’Amelio, 2008). We shouldn’t necessarily assume that “change agents are doing the right and proper things while change recipients throw up unreasonable obstacles or barriers intent on ‘doing in’ or ‘screwing up’ the change” (Ford, Ford & D’Amelio, 2008, pg. 362).
  5. Breathe and be present: I have been taking a mindfulness and meditation course meant to focus breathing and, in turn, concentration. This will help me stay in the moment and truly engage with a client – both in listening to what is being said and not being said. That action will help me be an organizational detective and uncover real reasons behind a change request and provide clues to resistance and influence, for example.
  6. Be of service: The MSLOC program has stressed the value of considering my impact on the world as a change practitioner. For me, three words sum it up: Be of service. As I consider consulting roles and career progress, I will continually ask myself: How am I truly helping others?
  7. Playing politics is good: In the past, I thought employees should avoid corporate politics at all costs, but it’s a necessary part of using power to build a better organization (Cawsey, Deszca & Ingols, 2016). Understanding power dynamics can also help the change practitioner determine who he or she needs to influence in terms of organizational resources, processes or meaning power (Cawsey, Deszca & Ingols, 2016).
  8. Use data – when it makes sense: Data was critical to building my last team, from developing workflow process to focusing on specific topics for digital content to marketing to audiences using social media. Data provided benchmarks on team member performance, helped secure additional department resources and set strategic direction. With current clients, I work to define how a marketing campaign will be measured and what goalposts will be set. That said, we’re entering a time of overwhelming data. The change practitioner and client must determine what metrics are worth measuring when implementing change.
  9. Change that isn’t sustainable isn’t really change: There’s a reason why an estimated 70 percent of change efforts fail (Nohria & Beer, 2000). Will the change “stick” once the consultant has left the project? How is that goal being weaved into the discovery and implementation phases?
  10. Admit when I can’t help a client: It’s critical to determine how a client really defines success and what steps they’ll specifically take to reach goals. Based on that feedback and my area of expertise, I may not be the right person to help. Admitting that quickly and avoiding empty promises can save time and money.


Barrett, D. J. (2002). Change communication: using strategic employee communication to facilitate major change. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 7(4), 219–231.

Beer, Michael, and Nitin Nohria. “Cracking the Code of Change.” Harvard Business Review 78, no. 3 (May–June 2000): 133–141.

Bryan, L. (2008). Enduring Ideas: The 7-S Framework. McKinsey Quarterly. Retrieved from

Cawsey, T. F., Deszca, G., & Ingols, C. (2016). Organizational change: an action-oriented toolkit (Third edition). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Ford, J. D., Ford, L.W., & Amelio, A. (2008). Resistance to change: The rest of the story. Academy of Management Review, 33(2), 362-377.

HBR’s 10 must reads on change management. (2011). Boston, Mass: Harvard Business Review Press.

Kitchen, P. J., & Daly, F. (2002). Internal communication during change management. Corporate Communication, 7(1) 46-53.